GOALS from Roberto Zavaroni and Robert Walker helped Bute to a third Balliemore Cup triumph in eight years in sun-soaked Portree on Saturday.
Captain John McCallum was greeted by roars of approval from team-mates, coaching staff and supporters after a closely-fought, often physical and always engrossing final against a dogged Caberfeidh side at Skye Camanachd’s Pairc nan Lochan home ground – setting off a memorable night of celebrations among players, coaching staff and enthusiastic supporters alike.
Despite coach Barry Martin’s insistence to the contrary in last week’s Buteman, there was little doubt that the men in red began the final as favourites to lift the trophy, with their unbeaten surge to the top of South Division One contrasting sharply with Caberfeidh’s inconsistent form at the same level of the northern game.
And initially at least, Bute looked a good bet to justify that tag, with two corners in the opening few minutes putting the Strathpeffer team under early pressure as the islanders sought a repeat of their 4-2 win when the sides met in the Camanachd Cup earlier in the season.
But this game soon proved to be a very different animal to that free-flowing April cup clash, with both sides’ defences proving more than up to the task of dealing with the danger posed by their opponents.
Despite the lack of clear goalscoring opportunities, the first half was far from dull, and there was plenty for both sets of supporters in the 800-strong crowd to enjoy – particularly those with a keen eye for the finer points of the defending game.
But it was Bute who made the breakthrough midway through the first half, when Zavaroni turned his man out wide and went for goal with a drive which bounced and bobbled before squirming past the Caberfeidh keeper.
It was far from the best goal scored by a Bute player this season, but few in the red corner were complaining – and the island team certainly had a spring in their step after breaking the deadlock, for it was Bute who finished the half the stronger, with Zavaroni and Leighton Reid both coming close to adding a second.
But it was captain McCallum who had perhaps the best chance of all to double Bute’s advantage when he set off on a fine run which put him clean through on the Caberfeidh goal – but his decision to go for glory rather than simplicity with his final shot came back to haunt him when his shot soared high over the crossbar.
At the other end David MacDonald and Hector Whitelaw, and half-backs Iain MacDonald and Brian Liddle, did a fine job sweeping up everything Caberfeidh could throw at them, leaving keeper Kevin Queen – hoping for a winner’s medal to add to a memorable month ahead of his marriage to Shuna this weekend – with very little to do between the sticks for Bute.
Half-time arrived with Bute still only one goal to the good, but the islanders began the second half with the fresh breeze at their backs – and just past the hour mark the men in red, who haven’t lost a Balliemore Cup tie since 2005, had one hand on the trophy when Reid’s shot was blocked by the Caberfeidh keeper and Walker pounced on the rebound as quick as a flash to flick home Bute’s second.
This Caberfeidh team, though, were a very different group to the one which lost in Rothesay in April – and any hopes Bute might have had of adding a few more to their tally and taking their foot off the pedal in the closing stages evaporated within two minutes of that Walker goal when Kirk Taylor’s shot squeezed past the unfortunate Queen, bringing the Ross-shire team right back into the match and delighting the blue-clad followers who made up the vast majority of the crowd.
To the surprise of absolutely no-one, Caberfeidh, with the wind in their sails, promptly proceeded to throw everything they had at the Bute defence, but Whitelaw, Liddle and the two MacDonalds did a superb job to keep their opponents at bay and ensure there were no more chinks in the red armour.
And as the clock ticked towards the final 15 minutes, instead of putting the Bute defence under ever-increasing pressure Caberfeidh began to run out of steam, their tired legs proving just too much of an obstacle to overcome against a notably fitter and younger Bute team, and at last allowing the islanders the freedom to play the free-flowing game on which they have long thrived.
The game was never likely to be hailed by shinty purists as a classic, but that was never going to damp down the Bute celebrations when referee Graham Irving blew the final whistle – celebrations which only grew in intensity when skipper McCallum held the trophy aloft, and showed no sign of slowing down as the sun set on a memorable day for the club.
“There wasn’t a lot of goalmouth action, but everyone who was there seemed to enjoy it,” Bute coach Barry Martin told us.
“It was a very different game to the last time we played Caberfeidh - they were older and more physical, but we stood up to everything they threw at us, and I thought the defenders played brilliantly.”